New Star Blogs

Rebel Cities, by David Harvey


Bri­an Kauf­man, edi­tor of sub­Ter­rain mag­a­zine as well as pub­lish­er over at Anvil Press, asked his col­league Rolf Mau­r­er, the pub­lish­er of New Star Books, to write a review of Rebel Cities, the lat­est book from David Har­vey. A ver­sion of this review, edit­ed for con­ci­sion (and space), appears in the cur­rent issue of sub­Ter­rain. Bri­an has con­sent­ed to us pub­lish­ing the writer’s cut on New Star Blogs.

Rebel_citiesWe’re sup­posed to be done with all that non­sense, but from Tunisia to Tahrir Square, from Athens to New York, peo­ple have been increas­ing­ly tak­ing their anger to the streets, evok­ing the spec­tre of anoth­er big city: Paris, cir­ca 1968, but also 1871. These demon­stra­tions seem more and more to cohere not around estab­lished class iden­ti­ties — fel­low work­ers, e.g. — but around the neigh­bour­hoods they share, and what’s being done to them.

Here in Van­cou­ver we have our own per­fect­ly respectable his­to­ry of urban-based resis­tance to cap­i­tal­ist bru­tal­i­ty, if noth­ing on the glob­al scale of Seat­tle et al. (Unless you include the Stan­ley Cup riots.) David Harvey’s lat­est, Rebel Cities, comes at a per­fect time for those of us try­ing to come to grips with local events.

Rebel Cities is David Harvey’s attempt at deploy­ing the insights he’s devel­oped across a dozen-plus books to under­stand this glob­al move­ment, and the forces of urban devel­op­ment that are increas­ing­ly inspir­ing defi­ance and rebel­lion. Harvey’s insights are a par­tic­u­lar­ly use­ful tool for under­stand­ing issues like con­do rede­vel­op­ment in the Down­town East­side, the demo­li­tion of the Cam­bie Projects, Bob Ren­nie, even the so-called Stan­ley Cup riot.

As Har­vey explains, urban (re)developments like Sequel 138, the Lit­tle Moun­tain project, Woodward’s and Olympic Vil­lage aren’t just more, or less, desir­able in and of them­selves; they are des­per­ate­ly need­ed by cap­i­tal to soak up all that sur­plus val­ue cre­at­ed by the last round of prof­it-tak­ing. Soak it up, at a prof­itable rate of return; that part goes with­out say­ing. Hate Bob Ren­nie all you want; it’s oth­er people’s mon­ey he’s talk­ing about invest­ing. Like Gary Bettman, he’s just car­ry­ing out his duties.

David Har­vey has gained a place as a lead­ing con­tem­po­rary Marx­ist thinker with his painstak­ing trac­ing of the move­ment of cap­i­tal not just with­in the realm of pro­duc­tion, the shop floor that pro­duced much of the Old Left’s polit­i­cal eco­nom­ics, but on through the realms of cir­cu­la­tion / finance, and of rent and con­sump­tion. Harvey’s body of work make clear how all that of “cri­sis” and “late” cap­i­tal­ism was fatu­ous, sim­ply uncom­pre­hend­ing of capitalism’s pro­tean muta­bil­i­ty.

For the past cou­ple of decades Har­vey has been par­tic­u­lar­ly occu­pied with urban rede­vel­op­ment. In books like The Enig­ma of Cap­i­tal and Paris: Cap­i­tal of Moder­ni­ty (inter­me­di­ate lev­el) and The Lim­its to Cap­i­tal (advanced), he lays bare the role that large urban projects — free­ways; pub­lic mar­kets and squares; large-scale apart­ment com­plex­es — play in the cir­cu­la­tion of cap­i­tal, and the repro­duc­tion of cap­i­tal­ism.

David Harvey’s big con­tri­bu­tion has been to talk about what Dad­dy War­bucks actu­al­ly does with that pile of prof­it he’s extract­ed from his work­ers. He has to do some­thing with it, or else the whole scheme col­laps­es. What he does is turn around and rein­vest it; or even bet­ter, he sticks it in the bank and directs the bank to make it worth his while, and the bank does the actu­al work of turn­ing around and rein­vest­ing. Gen­er­al­ly, in the form of cred­it, which means it can loan it out ten or twen­ty times. A cer­tain amount of it gets used to build build­ings that their own­ers (which might include War­bucks) can then charge rent for — anoth­er way, apart from employ­ing them, that the cap­i­tal­ist extracts prof­it from his work­ers. (Har­vey is espe­cial­ly good on “fic­ti­tious cap­i­tal” and rent.) And so it goes, around, and around, until one day —

Which brings us to our rebel cities of today, and their upris­ings big and small. (Har­vey includes the Lon­don riot­ing at one end of the con­tin­u­um.) That’s where Rebel Cities runs out of steam a bit. So, to be fair, do many of the urban upris­ings them­selves. Now that we’ve tak­en Zucot­ti Square .. . what next?

In old the blue­prints, it says the indus­tri­al work­ing class is sup­posed to be lead­ing us over the top of the bar­ri­cades. But the North Amer­i­can union move­ment has been relent­less­ly beat­en back since the Thatch­er and Rea­gan-era offen­sives. What’s left of it con­sists large­ly of pub­lic sec­tor work­ers, and the part that isn’t have got all their pen­sion funds invest­ed in the stock mar­ket. As for whether there’s hope to look for in the direc­tion of Shen­zhen, that could be a while.

Mean­while, Har­vey (who could gloat, but does not) has long favoured the idea that urban com­mu­ni­ty could form the basis of a social class with his­tor­i­cal agency. In Rebel Cities he asserts that the role of just such a class has been writ­ten out of stan­dard left accounts of the Paris com­mune, in par­tic­u­lar. The wave of urban protests, and the “right to the city” move­ment, have man­i­fest­ed the exis­tence of such a for­ma­tion, albeit with much less homo­gene­ity than an indus­tri­al work­place-based pro­le­tari­at, in turn requir­ing the con­stant for­ma­tion of alliances and coali­tions across tra­di­tion­al bound­aries, includ­ing ones of class. (Hardt and Negri would call this their “mul­ti­tude”, the alliances and coali­tions “rhi­zomes”.)

What lead­er­ship there has been of many of these protests, espe­cial­ly in the West, has tend­ed to come not from the main­stream left — unions, polit­i­cal par­ties — but from anar­chists. They seem to have the most per­ti­nent answer right now to the ques­tion that per­sists, of what is to be done: “Let’s find out!”

Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Rev­o­lu­tion, David Har­vey. Ver­so, 2012.